Wear OS was a footnote at I/O - here's hoping Google has something bigger planned

Whether it's a Pixel Watch or big OS changes, we need something to get excited again

Does it speak volumes that the one announcement Google had around Wear OS was made a week before its annual I/O developer conference? Or that announcement was about bringing a feature that has existed on a rival smartwatch for a while now - no means a groundbreaking addition to a smartwatch platform that still lags behind the competition?

When Sundar Pichai took to the stage for Google's keynote he talked smartphones, smart assistants and privacy. The only thing wearable related on stage was the Fossil Sport he was wearing.

Essential reading: Best smartwatches to buy now

It's a question we continually ask, but are smartwatches still a priority for Google? In our eyes it still struggles to provide a fitting riposte to what others (not just Apple) currently offer those that want useful smarts on their wrist. It's now been five years since the OS formerly known as Android Wear was first unveiled. While the hardware made the necessary move away from those initial techy, prototype smartphone companions to watches that looked much closer to the 'dumb' but classic designs that inspired them, the software that pulls it altogether hasn't had the same transformation.

Google has spent the last year-and-a-bit trying to do things it should have been doing from the start. Making Wear OS more user friendly, making it work better with non-Android phones and giving us the type of health and fitness features that Apple, Garmin and Fitbit have proven are features people want on their smartwatches. In 2019 though, we are still waiting to be blown away by Wear OS.

So why was there so little talk of smartwatches at I/O, the place where Google's developers assemble to help make its platforms - platforms like Wear OS - better? Our man stateside Hugh has been out at I/O this week, and while there was a Wear OS demo area where people could get a closer look at the new Tiles feature, that was it. The execs he spoke to said they're ramping up all things Wear OS internally, hinting at bigger stuff later this year, but it was barely a footnote of the show.

Talk of a hero smartwatch from Google will never go away. It feels like we've been speaking about a Pixel Watch for an eternity. We thought we'd finally see it in 2018, but it never turned up, yet the speculation won't go away. And while a Pixel Watch or whatever Google decides to call it (if it launches one) feels like something Google should do and needs to do, it's the software that underpins it all that really needs improve if Google wants to compete with watchOS, Tizen, Fitbit OS and Garmin's maturing smartwatch platform.

How does it do that? By having a clearer sense of what works and doesn't work on smartwatches. It's been five years now, Google should understand what is and what isn't sticking, taking lessons from partners that are getting Wear OS into the hands (and wrists) of more people. Those hardware partners are taking into their own hands to make Google's operating system a better fit, but it's high time Google proved that it's ready to make this work.

Maybe at next year's Google I/O Sundar Pichai will take to the stage wearing a Google-built smartwatch in hardware and software, and we will be talking more about the big things that are happening to Wear OS. My gut feeling is that we might be in the same place as we find ourselves today. I hope I'm proved wrong.

What do you think?

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  • Feanor·

    The idea that Wear OS is not in the same level with the competition is a pervasive and widespread notion that media recycle and strengthen with each article. It also has no objective basis. There is only one problem with Wear OS and this is the business decision of Qualcomm to not develop a proper SOC for Wear OS devices. The OS itself is chock full of features, thoughtful design and in many ways superior than the competition.

    I'd really like for a change to see an in-depth comparison between smartwatch operating systems to see where exactly everyone things that Wear OS truly lags. I have a quite big list of features where Wear OS is better than any other smartwatch OS.

  • Jhon-Woot·

    From my point of view it's not only due to the SoC. It's the hardware in general too. The manufacturers of WearOS watches are using crap sensors too for tracking activities and sports. Seems that they use the cheapest crap they find for maximize the profits and those sensors and chips absolutly lack of accuracy and precision. Their software above those sensors can't compete with what other systems and competitors offer. But with that bad hardware, developers don't even try to make good apps for sports, etc. The SoC is crap too, made in 28nm in 2019!!! And when the Google allies are a bunch of fashion and jewel manufacturers the result is like the one we have. Only watches with good looking, but not useful tools.

    At the Google I/O event, their executives were wearing Fossil watches... probably for promotion purposes too. So figure... And the worse is "IF" some day a Pixel watch could be released... it'll be manufactured by one of those.

    On the other hand, i don't find Qualcomm guilty, they don't have any reason fo manufacture a better SoC if they don't watch profit in it. Google and the watch manufacturers are the culprits, because they are the ones that must put together the money on the table and propose a quality agreement to Qualcomm or other SoC manufacturer for design a great SoC for their watches and OS. And being in 2019 with future perspective, the SoC should be a 7nm or better a 5nm one.

    But i don't see any sign from Google and WearOS watch manufactures that shows the intention of invest in good hardware for the future, new SoCs, the use of better and new sensors, etc. The software can't do miracles and people don't perceive that the actual watches and software worth the money they ask. The market charts are there to proof it. A lot better hardware is needed plus a smother system while using it too. And of course an eye on the upcoming solid state batteries too. Once they have invested in a better hardware and improved the system, with a good sdk and devkits, the community will put their part on make WearOS more popular, increase the sales and develop apps too for those watches.

    Sadly i don't see that upcoming soon or perhaps never. Who knows. We will see... For now... they only release tons of fashion watches for you combine them with you clothes and that's all.

    • Feanor·

      I totally agree. Then again the fashion brands are fashion brands and they will buy run of the mill components and dress them in fashionable designs, because this is exactly what they do with their analogue watches and this is what they know.

      However articles circulating the internet are clearly and inaccurately attacking the OS itself rather than the situation with the ecosystem. And this creates misunderstandings that result into bad publicity, which in turn most likely results into poor sales and the vicious circle continues. Yes, it is true that the SOC and the sensors inside Wear OS watches are bad, but the notification system is still the richest of all smartwatch operating systems (aren't notifications the primary reason for someone to have a smartwatch in the first place?), the AI assistant is the most capable, the battery life (which is constantly heavily criticized) is actually better than that of the Apple Watch (did any journalist actually test the battery life of the Wear OS watches with the screen off, which is the only state available on the Apple Watch?) the ecosystem is better than that of Tizen on Samsung smartwatches etc. Feature by feature Wear OS is probably the most capable smartwatch OS but it is always so shallowly treated by journalists always overeager to join the rumour mill. Yes, there is plenty to criticize around the situation with Wear OS but criticism has to be targeted, accurate and backed up by logical arguments.